An Exercise in Confidence: Conversing with Iona Somerville

Pragya NatarajanFebruary 8, 2021SilenceFeatures
An Exercise in Confidence: Conversing with Iona Somerville

“That’s where it all began really, that’s when my life began to change.”

Iona Somerville was 15 when she was scouted by explorer Craig Mathieson to join The Polar Academy. That’s when it all started. The Polar Academy is a school created by Mathieson to help quiet students in school gain confidence by preparing them for a polar expedition. This experience helped Iona gain the courage and strength she needed to take on the world and face everything from job interviews to recovering from the trauma of surviving the Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariana Grande concert.

The Polar Academy was also where she was introduced to Karen Darke, a paralympic gold-medalist who invited her to join the Pole of Possibility expedition. In this expedition, scheduled for January 2022, Iona will be part of a team going to 79 degrees south and 79 degrees east in Antarctica to create a new pole called the Pole of Possibility. Seventy-nine is the atomic number of gold, and this expedition represents inner gold. It will raise 79,000 pounds for the Spinal Injuries Association as well.

Photos courtesy of Iona Somerville

Before meeting Iona Somerville, I spent time researching all I could about her. After reading about her, I was unsure how to conduct the interview, because she seemed like a larger-than-life figure with the classic underdog story. I was scared of messing up an interview with someone I’d begun to look up to, but once I began to talk to her, all of that fear immediately dissolved.

Pragya: What are your hobbies or interests?

Iona: My hobbies are definitely sports. I used to do football, or soccer as you call it. And I just recently qualified as a sports therapist, which is involved with treating sports injuries and things like that. So yeah, I would say definitely sports is one of my main hobbies

Pragya: Where did your journey towards this moment begin?

Iona: I would say back when I was 15, when Craig, in the middle of The Polar Academy, came and talked to my school. That’s where it all began really, that’s when my life began to change.

Pragya: On the cusp of greatness.

Iona: Yep, looking back from now, my life has totally changed over the last five years.

Pragya: What is the Pole of Possibility?

Iona: The Pole of Possibility was set up by Karen Darke, who is a paralympian. She set it up as one of the most unique Antarctica challenges. It's also in partnership with The Polar Academy. What we hope to do is create a new pole in Antarctica at 79 degrees in longitude and latitude. I’ll copy this link and just pop it in the chat. If you scroll down to the journey part,there should be a map with a circle and in blue. That gives you a rough idea of the route we’re going to take from the Union Glacier all the way up to -79, 79 and then back down

Pragya: Which experiences in your life have led up to your involvement in the Pole of Possibility expedition?

Iona: So I was a part of something called The Polar Academy. Basically, The Polar Academy is a charity run by a man called Craig Mathieson, who is a massive explorer in Scotland. He created this charity to help high school children that fall in between the line of not being really amazing academically or not being really bad, if that makes sense, in school. We fall in the gap between. So in that sense we do our work and we don’t really say anything and we just go under the lanes of our teachers basically. We don’t really get noticed and because of that there’s a lot of lack of confidence, which I definitely have. So he identifies those groups of children in high school and he selects 10 children and he trains them for a year, and then after the year of training he takes them on a two-week arctic expedition in Greenland. Which totally changed my life as a 15-year-old girl. And it totally changed my life for the good. It gave me all the confidence that I needed, and it still grows over the years and takes time because I can see how much I’ve done on this 10-day expedition in Greenland. I can go for that job interview or I can do anything that’s this type of thing. So I was part of The Polar Academy, and Craig introduced me to Karen. And basically through that, Karen brought me onto the team. And I don’t know if you’ve read up on it, but I was also at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester?

Pragya: Yeah.

Iona: I was there as well. But because of The Polar Academy and the confidence that gave me, the mental resilience that gave me, that got me through the phase of being at the attack.

Pragya: Are there any specific experiences you remember from going on the expedition that you believe changed you as a person?

Iona: I got an injury to the knee on that expedition, and going through that pain stuck. Having the team around me, that made all the difference. I would’ve maybe given up if I didn’t have all the team there. Having the team there and just pushing me through, I made it all the way through the expedition with the injury, which taught me that I can keep going, if that makes sense. I’ve also seen the northern lights, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Pragya: I’ve always wanted to see those.

Iona: Yeah, if you ever get the chance, go see them.

Pragya: How did you find your voice? By that I mean, what motivated you to choose this cause to speak for or work towards? What impact do you envision the Pole of Possibility could have on the world?

Photos courtesy of Iona Somerville

Iona: Both mine and Karen’s mission is just to inspire young people to believe in themselves and to find that inner good, that inner belief that can bring you whatever you dream about if you just put your mind to it. You can get there.

Pragya: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Pole of Possibility is a charity event.

Iona: Yeah, through the Pole of Possibility we’ll be trying to raise 79,000 pounds for the Spinal Injuries Association.

Pragya: If you could talk to your past self, what would you say?

Iona: I would just say to be more confident in myself and believe in myself more. And just trust the process of everything, everything happens for a reason, even if it’s good or bad, it happens.

Pragya: This magazine issue is an exploration of the theme “silence” and how it’s involved in our lives. Has this experience at The Polar Academy enabled you to express yourself more fully and feel seen or heard?

Iona: Yeah definitely. I’ve been able to use my own voice rather than hiding behind other people. I’m definitely able to get myself out there more.

Pragya: What’s your view of silence in general? For example, do you find comfort in it or find it suffocating?

Iona: For me, I would say, it can be a scary thing, sometimes, but also your imagination can go wild with ideas, and it’s a bit of a contrast between good and bad.

Pragya: Yeah, that makes sense. Sometimes it feels like silence is overrated and sometimes you just need the silence.

Iona: Exactly, your mind processes it all.

Pragya: What are your goals and ambitions for the future?

Iona: I would say obviously doing the Pole of Possibility in January 2022 and hopefully just inspiring as many people as possible through my story. My story is maybe . . . someone’s starting block to get into their dream.

Pragya: That makes sense. So what you want to do in the future is basically continue telling your story, continue to help inspiring people?

Iona: Yeah definitely. Whether that be through a work type of thing or through just telling my story on a YouTube channel. Helping people is my main goal.

Pragya: By helping people, what do you want to work towards?

Iona: Work-wise, or career-wise, the police or the army. Life can change so dramatically, as you’ve seen over the last year. My career kept changing, it could change at any point. And so, I would definitely just keep myself reminded of that by saying there is the police and the army and sports, like sports therapy. Careers like that.

Iona is an incredibly warm and enthusiastic personality, and rather than dwell on her accomplishments, she’s casual about them. Learning that she completed the expedition in Greenland with a knee injury was especially shocking for me, because a knee injury is extremely painful, and being able to push on through 10 days of skiing is astonishing. The fact that she was the same age as I am right now when she went on an expedition with The Polar Academy made me realize that it doesn’t matter how young you are, you can do anything if you set your mind to it. It’s better to be a crashing wave at high tide than a silent murmur.

Pragya Natarajan is a tenth grader at Cupertino High School in California. Her hobbies are watching animated tv shows, running, reading, writing, and art. Her favorite color is red, and she loves interacting with people.